When people talk of being in the family business, you don’t imagine they are talking about the media. But, surprisingly there are many families where there is at least one journalist in every generation or a sibling working in the industry at the same time. It is hardly about keeping a family business afloat, so why would people follow familial footsteps into this, an industry of individuals and eccentrics?
The Media spoke to a number of those in our ‘family business’ in part one of a two-part story first published in The Media magazine.
Stefaans Brummer and his sister, Willemien, are both multiple award-winning journalists. She is an author and specialist writer for Media24’s newspaper supplement, By, and he is an acclaimed investigative reporter for the Mail&Guardian’s investigative unit.
Being the grandchildren of CJ Langenhoven who wrote the original South African national anthem, Die Stem, and was one of the foremost writers and promoters of the Afrikaans language and media – has clearly rubbed off on Stefaans and Willemien, albeit in different ways. “We grew up with stories as a means of communication in our family,” says Willemien. “Language was also really important to us.” While their father was a mathematician, he was always telling stories and learning new languages.
Neither sibling saw their future as journalists but once it grabbed them, there was no turning back.
Stefaans studied law and then politics honours without a clear direction. “I always regard myself as an observer rather than an activist so it was a natural transition to journalism. He applied twice to get into the Stellenbosch Journalism honours course before he was successful. “I was always transfixed by newspapers and would dart out to be the first to get the morning paper so I could read it before school.” He made extra money delivering Die Burger and cites delivering to former prime-minister PW Botha because Groote Schuur was on his route, as one of his claims to fame.
Willemien went to the same Stellenbosch journalism school as her older brother, after completing a drama degree, because she thought it was a good skill to have as a part-time way to pay rent while she looked for acting jobs. She preferred it to waitressing. “I always thought journalists stole other people’s words and what they did was boring and not in the least bit creative,” she says. But in 1999, she got a job at Die Burger and after doing news for a while she became a feature writer and started winning awards. She says of her brother: “He is a real journalist and I am a story teller.” He says: “I am more forensic and she is narrative. She is the literary giant.” They are both proud of each other. “I am really, really proud of Stefaans and what he has achieved. He is an excellent journalist and has done some really important work. I read everything he writes.” But when they get together, they never talk journalism. “She is just my sister then not my sister the journalist,” says Stefaans.
While she writes in her mother-tongue, she says: “Afrikaans is not important to Stefaans. He regards with disdain what goes on in the Afrikaans press.”
Janet Heard comes from a historically media family. Her late grandmother Vida Heard was editor of the Homestead in the 1920s, a newspaper insert into Farmers Weekly then. She went on to editing the Natal Mercury’s women’s pages, Family Life and Femina. Janet’s grandfather, George Heard was the Sunday Times political correspondent and Rand Daily Mail assistant editor. Her uncle, Ray Heard was a political reporter at the Rand Daily Mail and then editor of the foreign news service for the Observer and finally head of news at Global Television in Canada.
Her father, whose legend she lives with, was the Cape Times editor (1973 – 1987). He was fired (albeit two years later) after publishing an interview with the then banned and exiled president of the ANC Oliver Tambo, contravening the restrictive media laws of the time. According to the ‘legend’ he was fired because he did this without telling his bosses, but they deny it.
So, being a journalist/editor as well as Tony Heard’s daughter, comes with a sense of pride. But the idea of being seen to be following in her father’s footsteps did not sit well with her. “I was always aware of this and kept asking myself whether I just copied what my dad did. He never overtly said I should be a journalist.” To get away from the comparisons, she went overseas and worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg because although people knew of him, he was less of a legend there than he was in Cape Town.
“I am okay about being at the Cape Times now,at the age of 45, as so many years have passed since my father was at the newspaper. He was fired in 1987, 23 years ago.”
She attributes wanting to be a journalist partly to being a student in the mid-1980s. “It was an exciting time and I remember thinking I wanted to make a difference and be involved in the anti-apartheid story by documenting it,” she says.
But, in truth, her father had the greatest influence on her career choice. “The most memorable thing about him was his inquisitiveness and his constant searching for the truth,” she recalls. “He was always active and involved in what was happening in the country. He was always on the go, rushing off to phone the newsdesk to change a story or he would take us with to go and check something out.”
She recalls going into Crossroads (township in the Western Cape) with her dad in her pyjamas and witnessing people who were homeless and camping in a community hall in the middle of winter.
Janet says she couldn’t help but become curious and question apartheid and the unjustness of society. She would discuss news and pertinent issues with her father. “He was always so passionate about his work and it seemed like his job was so exciting. There were also always interesting people around him.”
But when the time came to choose her career, Heard was in fact unsure whether to go the marine biology or journalism route. But, within days of arriving at Rhodes University in 1984, she got swept up by the tide and felt like she could really make a difference as a journalist.
She admits that her dad was, for the most part, “an absent father” because he was always busy. “He was a good father but we would have liked to have seen him more. He was always rushing off because news came first.”
“I loved going into the Cape Times newsroom and what was then called Mahogany Row (where the editors were based). It was so exciting. I loved watching the papers come off the press.”
She says she believes her dad is amused at what she is doing now and thinks he enjoys it. “Journalism is his first love and he has always quietly supported me.” She insisted on always keeping her career separate from him as she never wanted him to introduce her to things that might be seen as getting a leg up.
Ray Joseph is the quintessential Cape Town newspaperman, who was once the youngest news editor of the Sunday Times. Today he freelances, consults, trains, restructures underperforming newsrooms and launches new titles. His daughter Natasha – news editor of the Cape Argus — was barely a child when she went along to ‘the office’ with him on Saturdays to help out. Natasha’s two cousins, who are sisters, are also in the media industry: Janna Joseph who is the editor of Hip2b2 magazine and Justine Joseph who is an award-winning feature writer.
Ray Joseph was the first journalist in his family. He says he got into journalism by accident when trying to avoid having to work after serving his military conscription. He applied for a job on the SA Jewish Times as a junior reporter just to keep the peace with his dad who was on his case to get some direction in his life. After “the bug had well and truly bitten”, he did the SAAN (now Avusa) cadet course and went onto work for the Rand Daily Mail, the Sunday Express, the Weekend Post and The Sunday Times as a cadet reporter. He became the Sunday Times crime reporter, later running the paper’s Port Elizabeth, then Durban and Cape Town bureaux before being appointed London correspondent for three years. He was made news editor and eventually left for a few years, only to rejoin the Sunday Times as Cape editor.
He says: “When Natasha – the archetypal newsroom brat who has hung around the newspaper offices from a very young age – told me she wanted to become a reporter, I was inwardly proud,” he says. “But my immediate response was to tell her I thought she could do better. Her answer: “You’ve spent my whole life teaching me to be a journalist, now you’re saying I can’t be one”. This made him see how silly his response to her was.”Today, he gets a real kick out of telling people what his daughter does. “We have always been close, but newspapering has forged a strong camaraderie between us,” he says.
For Natasha, there was never any doubt as to her career path. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life and I spent a lot of time as a kid learning how things work in a newsroom.” After graduating from Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, she dabbled in public relations before getting a job on the Cape Times in 2007 and moved to the Argus news desk in June 2009.
“When I’m particularly stressed and being viciously assaulted by deadlines, I curse my father for ever letting me tag along to work with him on Saturdays,” she says. He was her only influence in wanting to work in the media. “I had access to newsrooms and journalists, and that helped light a spark that had perhaps always existed.” The appeal for her was “meeting interesting people, telling important stories and occasionally getting to meet Miss South Africa”.
But one of the phrases she heard most commonly in her working life, though less so these days, is ‘Oh, you’re Ray Joseph’s daughter!’ “My father is well-known and respected, so bringing that surname along into newspapers meant that his reputation preceded me but it can be tough knowing I am being compared to someone who is so good at what he does. Talk about pressure! But my dad himself has never made me feel like a pretender to some throne, or professionally inferior in any way, and that makes things easier.”
He did remind her that journalism was a tough demanding career and that any hopes of becoming a multi-millionaire should probably be shelved. He was very supportive throughout my studies and has been an invaluable advisor throughout my professional life.” Despite the support from her mother and sister, she says, they may rue this occasionally when family dinners degenerate into discussions about the media appeals tribunal.
PHOTO: Natasha and Ray Joseph photographed by Justin Sholk.